For introverts, self-quarantine isn’t so bad

Introverts tend to enjoy more time to themselves, are very aware of their internal thoughts and recharge more in solitude. Extroverts are just the opposite. Extroverts are more outspoken, outgoing and absolutely love being around other people. They’re talkative and like being the center of attention.”                                                   — Chelsea Connors, therapist

Extroverts chafe me. This certified introvert has spent most of his life avoiding them: the whooping jocks, chest-thumping frat boys, screechy sorority girls, cocky corporate management types, knee-slapping laughers, actors, garrulous social hambones who have to keep everyone rapt with hypnotic anecdotes and stories, the very loud and touchy.

These are the people who are having a hard time with “social distancing” during COVID-19. They’re on FaceTime and Zoom, keeping the party going electronically, lest life in self-quarantine shrivels them up into lonely nobodies. The outgoing who live to go out, hug and high-five and fist pump and kissy-kissy on both cheeks. And strangely cracking up, constantly.

friends_having_fun-1200x628-facebook.jpgIntroverts, on the other hand, are naturally adapting to the situation, even relishing it. This, pundits declare, is the year of the introvert, what with mandated social distancing during the pandemic, which demands people stay apart, social scenes closed or restricted, and families huddled in their homes. No sports events? Oh, darn it.

“Finally,” a tweeter rejoices, “something I’m good at: staying at home and avoiding people!”

Isn’t it great? 

In case I’m branded some sort of antisocial Hamlet or “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” I emphatically aver that I do (did) like to get out for a great dinner, good movie or a play, and some drinks. And my inveterate world travel is taking a heartrending hit. 

But it’s worth noting this shift in the social landscape: the meek shall inherit the earth, for a while. From the Twitter-sphere come these words of comfort for the eternally uncomfortable:

— “Any other socially awkward introverts out there feel oddly aroused anytime anyone mutters the phrase ‘social distancing?’ Asking for myself. Obviously.”

— “As single and an introvert, we’ve been social distancing since before it was popular.” 

— “Introverts have been doing this for years! Look who’s suddenly the cool kids at the party now!” 

— “Finally introverts experience a world that is suited to us. All events cancelled, we don’t even have to go thru the trouble of flaking. No one is making random small talk or physical contact. Everybody minding their own business.”

— “So ‘social distancing’ is gonna save us all from #CoronaVirusSeattle.YAY. INTROVERTS WILL SURVIVE AND RULE THE WORLD. Quietly, of course. But still.”

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Reading, a loner’s sport

I read in bars. It’s spectacularly geeky behavior, but as I often haunt bars alone, white pages peppered with black typography make excellent company. If it’s early and bar seating is available, I’ll even brazenly crack my laptop at a corner stool and read and write. I haven’t spilled a drink on the laptop yet, knock on formica.  

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I don’t know many loners (why is everyone so umbilically peoplely?), so my bar-book habit isn’t totally understood. Once, while I was relaxed and swimming in words, a colleague razzed me for reading The New Yorker in a neon-drenched corner of a Texas dive bar. I told him to buzz off and returned to an exceptionally chucklesome Shouts & Murmurs. Not exactly high drama, but the point is: Some just don’t get it. 

And I get that. If I wasn’t such an insatiable reader — I bring reading material everywhere (I even read a book on line at Disneyland) — I’d regard someone with a book and a beer in a bar as exotic, or sad, possibly pretentious. “Reading a book seems to say: ‘I’m going to be here all evening, drinking this one light beer, so please rescue me from a lifetime of loneliness before I go home to the cats who will someday eat my corpse,’” quips The Daily News.

Funny. But what that misses is what a bold gesture reading alone in public is, and not a piteous one. Bar readers know they appear out of place, irretrievably nerdy, kind of lame. But they also know what they’re doing: enjoying two of their favorite things — words and wine; Tom Wolfe and Tom Collins — in a refuge away from home, where, despite the hermetic aspect of the reading experience, one is still surrounded by the healthy buzz of other beings. The book (or magazine or newspaper), after all, can easily be put down — unlike phones with most people, who are truly and perversely debilitated by their devices. 

“The person at the bar reading a leather-bound copy of ‘Great Expectations’ isn’t pathetic,” Thrillist avers, helpfully. “They’re mysterious and brooding and potentially full of more intricate webs of life-challenging secrets than a YA section at Barnes & Noble. All this is diminished if you are reading from an iPad. Or anything by Dan Brown.” (Those last two lines are funny because they’re true.)

And yet another critic of sipping a White Russian while nipping some Dostoyevsky on a barstool calls reading in bars a “standoffish, even hostile gesture. It signifies that you have little interest in celebrating or commiserating with your fellow patrons.”

So what and boo-hoo. And anyway, that writer’s observational faculties are comical at best, foolhardy at worst. A “hostile gesture” — reading? Maybe if you’re poring over “Mein Kampf,” “Dianetics,” or “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But a book can be an invitation, a conversation starter (especially if you’re reading any of the above titles). And it beats people-watching or glazing over the Times Square spread of LCD TVs. 

Unless it’s you and your child cuddled in bed, or an author appearance at a bookshop event, reading’s a solitary experience. A book, a beer and I. That’s why I’ve never understood the allure of book clubs (note the smooth segue to our next topic), those small-talk nightmares all about chit-chat and socializing and rarely about the book selected by an unreliable committee.

I already have a long list of books I really want to read without being assigned something I might kind-of sort-of want to read in a circumscribed period of time. In other words: homework.  

“Nearly everyone who’s been in a book club has a bone to pick with them,” writes SFGate. “Big personalities dominate the discussion. You’re expected to read a thousand-page brick in a single month. The books you pick are too literary, or not literary enough. Janice didn’t pitch in for wine and cheese.”

So there is this: As part of a verifiable “introvert revolution” springs the Silent Book Club, an actual book club often called “Introvert Happy Hour.” It started in San Francisco eight years ago with two gal pals reading together in a bar. It now boasts 180 chapters worldwide. 

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“The concept is simple yet revolutionary: Members meet up at a bar, a library, a bookstore or any venue that will host them. Once the bell rings, silent reading time commences. After an hour, the bell rings again,” NPR writes. 

“Other than that, there are no rules. Liberated from the orthodoxy of traditional book clubs, participants can bring whatever they’d like to read and chat about anything, before and after the designated reading time.”

Yes, but, it’s still a club, and I’m not partial to organized bodies, be it team sports or religion. So this one, despite its fresh, sensible rules, will have to be a pass. I simply don’t understand why strangers feel the need to congregate and read together. 

People are needy things, squeezed by social pressures and expectations, FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome, and other insecurities. For me, loneliness isn’t the goal; solitude is. I extract myself from others for a while, book in one hand, beer in the other. Call it eccentric. Call it snooty. I call it peace. I call it bliss.